A Walk in the Dark A look in to the mind of an RPG designer


13Aug/19Off

A New Beginning

It's been eight months since I post here... better now than never.

Over the past week I've been thinking a lot, specifically about Atomic Age.

In case you don't know, Atomic Age is my post-apocalyptic treatment of the Archmage Engine, which powers 13th Age. It came to be because I wanted Gamma World, and I wasn't allowed to create Gamma World content for fear that WotC would sue me into non-existence (they had threatened to do so already). But, during its development, it became something different... It's still post-apocalyptic, but not as zany and off the wall as Gamma World is known to be. I think of it as somewhat of a cross between Gamma World, Mad Max and what the future would be like in a Terminator film that didn't time travel.

But here's the thing... when you choose a system to develop your campaign setting around, most of the time you're stuck with the nuances of that system. The Archmage Engine is a great system, don't get me wrong, but there are some aspects of it that didn't feel right or I couldn't get to work with what I wanted to do. For example, how would mutations work in a 13th Age system? What about radiation poisoning? And there are some thing that came with it that I didn't want at all... like magic item "quirks", which are good by design in a fantasy game like 13th Age but just don't fit in my campaign setting.

Since I wrote most of Atomic Age, Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition made its appearance and the landscape changed. As is the case with the Archmage Engine, I have some issued with 5E in that, although it does some things really well, other things not so much. For example, creating monsters and encounters in 13th Age is stupid easy... in 5E, not so much. And 5E doesn't even come close to the background/icon system that Archmage provides.

So I had a crazy idea... why bind myself to a single system? DMs do it all the time... cherry pick bits and pieces from multiple systems, campaign settings, and other source material and create a virtual Frankenstein's Monster of an RPG system to use in their homebrew campaigns. Only I want to take that Monster and publish it.

So I decided to try and write my own RPG system, picking and choosing the features that I want from multiple systems and melding it all into one amorphous blob that will power Atomic Age.

I'm insane, aren't I? Seriously, I have no idea how this is going to go... mainly because it's a daunting task and I'm not exactly sure I know what I'm doing in this regard.

But I can't do it alone.

So I've done something crazy: I've reworked my Patreon to be aimed specifically towards the creation of this new engine. And I'm going to do something even crazier: try to stick to a regular schedule in which I dicuss what this engine is going to be, which means this blog will hopefully see activity it hasn't seen in ages.

Will this become a reality? Who knows... but I have to try. A lot of work has been done for the Archmage Engine version of Atomic Age, but I don't see that ever being cobbled together in such a way that I will be happy with all aspects of it. Hopefully, this way I will actually be happy with it because it'll be wrapped around something I myself put together for the specific purpose of powering the campaign setting.

I hope you all will join me on this crazy ride. My Patreon is open to your support! If you sign up now, you will get my latest published adventure, Witness Protection, absolutely free!

Ever forward...

4Jun/14Off

A Developer’s Hell

Gosh, it's been a while... To say my life has been hectic, or difficult, is somewhat of an understatement. So much so that I have had to effectively cancel my trip to GenCon this year because I see no way whatsoever that it can be logistically or financially possible. So, to those of you that are going, I will have no choice but to experience it vicariously through you.

Meanwhile, my little pet project - the Atomic Age RPG - has been languishing in something I can only describe as "development hell". Or maybe "launch a Kickstarter hell", if such a thing exists.

Here are my concerns with the project:

1) I have no art

Right now, at this very moment, I can probably launch a Kickstarter, distribute or sell the product... but I can't bring myself to do that. You see, right now at it stands it's nothing more than a text dump, an almost identical copy of the Archmage Engine SRD with some words and numbers changed. That does not make for a successful RPG by any means, and I feel that if I were to do that the product wouldn't last a day before disappearing into obscurity.

If I'm going to do this I'm going to do this right, which means that I need some sort of art. And there are many levels that need to be covered by art...

  • I don't even have a LOGO yet
  • The Kickstarter listing alone needs some sort of art
  • The core book needs art. A LOT of art, quite frankly
  • Everything else (stretch goals, backer rewards, etc...) needs art

Now I know a handful of artists I want to approach with this project, and I have even had business-like discussions with them, but with all of them there is a cost to get this off the ground. Maybe some will do it free, I don't know... I didn't ask and I don't want to ask. Like I said, I want to do this right: I do not want contributions or charity. I'm going to treat this like a business, which means I will pay my artists what the market bears.

That being said, although the cost of prettying up the core book and supplementals will be covered by the Kickstarter itself, the logo and Kickstart art will not and has to be paid first. The financial turmoils I've already mentioned make that rather difficult to do, and I can't bring myself to take the next steps without knowing - without a doubt - that I can afford my artists.

2) It hasn't been officially announced

I've mentioned the project in passing, and have even posted images of some of the content I've been working on, but it hasn't really been officially announced. There's a website, and a Facebook page, and a Twitter account... but few people know about it.

Why not? I don't have a logo, and for personal pride reasons I feel I can't start officially directing people to the social media venues without having a product identity.

So, until I can do that, they stay clouded in obscurity and amidst the whispers of a select few.

3) It hasn't been playtested

Because it hasn't been launched, few people know about it. Even fewer have actually seen it. Actually, I can only think of two people that have, and even those two have probably only glanced over it, figuring I wasn't quite serious about this whole thing because I haven't done everything I mention above.

For that reason, I have no idea if what I'm doing is "right" or "broken". I don't know if I properly grasp the concepts and game style people expect or look forward to, or if I've created any single element that needs radical changing before it gets abused all to hell.

Granted, the playtesting could theoretically happen during or after the Kickstarter, but as a long time game designer it's a serious concern for me. I've had issues before with games that weren't properly tested... Sure, this isn't a video game, but I feel it needs an equal level of analysis and testing before getting anywhere near production.

4) It hasn't been edited

I'll be honest: I'm a lousy writer. And if you're a writer reading this, I bet you can admit (to yourself, at least) that in the early stages of your writing career you were a lousy writer too. Heck, there are probably several dozen grammatical errors and misspellings in this post alone (yes, I know they're there... No, don't point them out).

If I want to do this right, the game has to be the best that it can be, and for that an editor is absolutely necessary. Yes, I know that the editor can do his job pretty much at any time before the product reaches the final stages, but that would mean that the early "alpha" or playtest releases might end up looking like they were written by a child who can't speak English. Once again, personal pride steps in... You can be the creator of the best RPG the world has ever seen, but if you give it to the world using text that looks like it was written by a monkey with a typewriter it doesn't matter how good the game is.

5) It's not done

In the video game industry, there was a time when if you asked pretty much any video game developer when they were going to release their product they would answer without hesitation "when it's done" (I guess we can thank 3D Realms for that one). But the thing is, if it were entirely up to me and my creative flow, what exactly defines "done"? Honestly, I could keep writing content until the core manual is 3,000 pages. Who decides "OK, you can stop now and publish this"?

Furthermore, as many authors will probably attest to, it's hard to be satisfied with what you've written. When you think you're done, you look at it and think "you know, I didn't like [X]... let me fix that"... And six months and 400 pages of rewrites later you keep thinking the same thing. It's very hard for a writer to stop themselves because, in their eyes, it's never done... it's never perfect... and there's always room to do something better.

Let's look at the classic example of someone taking forever to write something: George R. R. Martin. Do you honestly think he sits down and starts writing page one, then as soon as he writes the last word of page 1,200 sends it off to the publisher and never thinks about it again? Heck no. Let's be realistic here, there probably is at least one version of The Winds of Winter that is already written cover to cover... He's knows it's terrible,  he's probably been writing and rewriting and rewording and fixing it for the last four years, and will probably keep doing that for another four years because that's the way he works. If he had someone that made him publish the books when they were ready, we'd have fifteen books in the series by now. They may not be as awesome as the five books we've seen (they'd probably suck, to be honest), but they'd be out there.

So unless you're George R. R. Freakin' Martin, eventually you have to put your foot down and say "OK, I might have spent five years rewriting this thing eighteen times, and I know it's probably the worst thing I've ever written, but I can't keep doing this until the end of time", send it to your publisher and hope that you're the only one that thinks it sucks.

I know a lot of things in my product are deficient, or "broken", or nothing more than a "// TODO" tag. It's personal pride again, preventing me from having anyone besides myself see how bad or lacking this product is. Every day I write something, even if it's a sentence or a paragraph or changing monster #135's Mental Defense stat... But I know that at some point I'm going to have to force myself to stop and let other people look at this mess.

Anyway, besides the personal issues I will not elaborate on here, I have a lot of things to do and a lot of battles with my own pride to overcome. This product will get done, sooner than later, and I just have to get my crap together to do it.

Until the Kickstarter launches, "ever forward..."

2Feb/14Off

Atomic Age Preview: The Vorpal Rabbit

In case you aren't aware, my pet project - the post-apocalyptic treatment of 13th Age's Archmage Engine SRD - has a name now: Atomic Age. We have a website and a Twitter account, but I'm not exactly advertising yet because I don't have appropriate branding for it. I want a logo and a few creative assets before I head unto the breach that is social media.

In the meantime, development continues... Most recently on the catalog of monsters that will be included with the core book. Initially I had created the "straight", not off-the-wall monsters that could be present in a semi-realistic post-apocalyptic world - robots, soldiers, wasteland marauders, etc. - but now it's time to do the weird ones that make a post-apocalyptic game entertaining and offbeat.

While I was converting Lepus Maximus to Atomic Age, someone mentioned Monty Python and the Holy Grail. And with that the thought process was unavoidable.

Since it's actually compatible with 13th Age, here you have my latest creation: The Vorpal Rabbit. Hope you enjoy!


Rabbit, Vorpal

Normal 3rd level Wrecker Beast [RABBIT]
Initiative +7

AC 20
PD 15
MD 11
HP 44

Huge, sharp teeth +8 vs. AC - 8 damage, and the rabbit pops free from the target

Charge: The attack instead deals 12 damage on a hit if the rabbit moves first before attacking an enemy it was not engaged with at the start of its turn.
Natural 17+: 6 ongoing damage (hard save ends, 16+)

Quick footed: The rabbit gains a +5 bonus to disengage checks.

Leap about: As a move action and with a successful disengage check (if applicable), the rabbit can hop to any nearby space it can see.

Fear: While engaged with this creature, enemies that have 15 hp or fewer are dazed (–4 attack) and do not add the escalation die to their attacks.

Nastier Specials
Critical threat: When the rabbit makes a charging attack, it scores a critical hit on a 17+.

Vicious streak: When the rabbit scores a critical hit, it can move to engage another nearby target and makes a charging bite attack against it as a free action.

2Dec/13Off

Future Plans

So although there is still a metric crapload of stuff to be done for my new project, I can't help but think of what I'm doing to do with it.

First off, a Kickstarter is probably a definite at this point, but that notion terrifies me more than you can possibly know. I've heard the horror stories, and although I've heard all the things that can - and probably will - go wrong I question whether I can avoid them. I'm afraid of doing it wrong and either paying a heavy cost or disappointing my backers.

But, honestly, what terrifies me most is that it ends up being hugely successful. Although I like to think I can make sound business decisions and have no intention of disappointing anyone who has placed their trust in me, I'm scared to think of what might happen if Amazon Payments suddenly drops several thousand dollars worth of backer funding in my lap. I'm not saying I'll end up at a crap table in Vegas or anything, but it's a big concern that I use that money wisely and not do something absurdly wrong with it. I mean, I can think of at least three half-million-earning Kickstarters that came out and sad "Sorry, we spent all our money. Project over." I don't want to be another statistic like that.

I've started to shop around for the resources I will need, filling the gaps that I know I am personally deficient in. I need artists more than anything, one or more people that would be willing to commit to doing several pieces of art for a project of this potential magnitude. I need editors, and possibly a layout person, and more editors, and probably even more editors. I may also need a cartographer because I suck at outdoor maps and I'm going to need a well-messed-with map of the continental United States. And did I mention editors?

Then there's the cost of printing and shipping, which combined are the downfall of many a Kickstarter. I've been shopping around for book pricing, and the spectrum of quotes I've gotten is hard to understand. As far as I know so far, printing a 200-page color book could cost anywhere between $6 and $60, depending on who you ask, how many copies, the type of paper stock, etc... Deciding what volume rate to base the Kickstarter goal on kind of involves Calculus to determine what the exact point is at which it all becomes profitable. And then there's mailing of course, having to worry about shipping costs to godforsaken places that have Internet but are so expensive to ship to you'd think they can only receive packages by way of dog sled.

And, while taking all those expenses into consideration, you have to find the sweet spot that is your Kickstarter goal. Make it to low and you'll lose your shirt in costs, make it to high and the project might not fund. Unless your Kickstarter listing has the words "Monte Cook" in it somewhere, you may have a hard time funding it if it's too high a goal.

Anyway, maybe I'm thinking too far ahead... but it is exciting in its own way. I want to do this right, get this done the way the project deserves, without mucking it up like so many other people have.

So what will the Kickstarter include? Well, here's what I'm envisioning... And mind you, this is some very premature thinking...

  • The core rulebook, which will probably be slightly smaller than the 13th Age rulebook - but not by much - simply because I have less classes and some sections will be shorter.
  • I'd like a nice big map of the United States as it stands today. I know which artists I'm going to ask for this, but they're pricy.
  • Although I have to look back on the legalities of it all, I am considering converting Fire From the Sky in to the sample adventure in the back of the book (replacing "Blood & Lightning" in the 13th Age core book).
  • The Fortress of Dr. Neb as a standalone adventure, for either Adventurer or Champion tier. Designed to be very Gamma World-like, zany and weird.
  • Where Worlds Collide as a standalone adventure, for either Champion or Epic tier. Since this concept originally revolved around the LHC after the "Big Mistake", it may have to be reworked a tiny bit to fit in to the setting. It will probably be high difficulty, along the original intent of making it a Fourthcore-like adventure, and will probably be more serious and less zany than Dr. Neb.
  • I'm also considering converting A Night in Seyvoth Manor, but that's a long story I don't think I can talk about yet.

Like I said, a lot of work to do... and I'm diligently working on it all as best I can. I'd like to get as much possible done before actually launching the Kickstarter, but my impatience might get the better of me. We'll see how long I can hold out before taking the big step into the realm of crowdfunding.

In the meantime, I'll keep talking about it... revealing some of the design concepts behind it... trying to detail my thoughts and what I'm actually doing. Just bear with me; should be a fun ride.

Oh... and this project still needs a NAME...

Filed under: 13th Age, Design, RPG No Comments
27Nov/13Off

On The Road (Part 3)

Hopefully this will be the last of my series talking about the theory behind vehicle mechanics. If you're not up to speed, here is part one and part two.

Hardpoints

In the post-apocalyptic age, sometimes just having an average car isn't enough. You need to... how should we say... accessorize it.

Depending on the vehicle size, it will have one or more hardpoints, which are positions in the vehicle's frame where you can install something more. This may be as simple as an extra fuel tank or something more entertaining like an anti-tank cannon.

In the example we've been using, the Mad Max Interceptor Pursuit Special, Max had installed supplemental gas tanks that take up most of the rear of the vehicle. He instead could have installed some additional weaponry like a gun or RPG. These weapons do not necessarily take up the same space on the vehicle as the gas tanks do; the hardpoints not only reflect physical space but also reflect physical weight added to the vehicle. You try to drop a howitzer on to the back of the average car and you'd be lucky to drive it away from the shop.

With that in mind, we look at our three size categories:

  • Small (motorcycle, moped, etc.): No hardpoints
  • Medium (average car): One hardpoint
  • Large (18-wheeler): One hardpoint on the cab, three hardpoints on the trailer.

Now what can we install?

  • Extended Fuel Tank (1 hardpoint): We'll talk about fuel in a little bit
  • Armor Plating (1 to 2 hardpoints, depending on vehicle size): Increases Physical Defense dramatically
  • Booster (1 hardpoint): Anything from an advanced nitrous injection system to a full on rocket engine sticking out of the back. Something to make the car go faster.
  • Basic Weapon (1 hardpoint): Machine gun, RPG, etc...
  • Anti-Aircraft Gun (2 hardpoints): Designed specifically to aim upwards at aircraft
  • Heavy Weapon (2 hardpoints): An anti-tank gun, railgun, missile battery, etc...
  • Power Generator (1 hardpoint): Something that provides power to the vehicle, replacing the vehicles need for fossil fuels, such as a Mr. Fusion sticking out of the car's back.
  • Wedge (1 or more hardpoints): Something to get other things out of your way or ram other cars with

So on and so forth.

Abstract the Rest

Besides weapon damages (which are separate from the core vehicle and mechanics needed to drive it), there isn't much else that needs to be explained in vivid detail. Everything else, as far as I can tell, is up to GM and player interpretation

Fuel

In a post-apocalyptic world, fuel is somewhat scarce. Although some of the oil fields and refineries that dotted the midwest are still in operation, they are all under control of either The Warlord or The Desert Prince (both icons).

The question arises of how to keep track of fuel. I don't feel it appropriate to nitpick this, detailing a vehicle's MPG and exactly how long it has until it runs empty. I much rather prefer that GMs realize that a vehicle needs some sort of fuel and what the average expected range of a full gas tank will be, but I don't want them to be tracking it down to the gallon like some people use to track encumbrance.

That being said, the only thing that i may mention in a vehicle entry is what type of fuel it uses. Some vehicles may use good ol' gasoline, while others might have a Mr. Fusion installed on a hard point. Managing when a vehicle could, or should, run out of gas is up to the GM.

Another option is to simply have fuel become an issue when the plot demands it. In other words, the only time you'll run out of fuel is when it's a good time in the story to do so. If you're in a close race, battling dozens of marauders as they try to run you off the road, running out of fuel now is a death sentence and may bring the story to an end right quick. Instead, simply wait until the immediate danger is other and the party got away before making the car gradually glide to a stop and sputter out.

I intend to take a similar approach with guns... In a future installment, we'll talk about what I like to call "dynamic ammo".

Speed, Movement and Position

Just like movement is abstracted in a normal encounter, movement in a car should be allowed to be as equally abstract. We all know how fast cars can go and how quickly they can get up to speed; I don't see the need to overburden the rules with acceleration rates and maximum speeds.

Unless you're dealing with faster cars that have supercharged engines or dealing with slower cars that have taken damage, every car should be expected to be moving at about the same rate. As far as firing arcs, it should not get more complex than "behind", "in front", "left" and "right".

Combat and Damage

Like anything else in the world, cars can be damaged. How that is interpreted is up to the GM.

The thing about cars is that it's very easy to disable them; a single shot to a tire can cripple even the best of cars, but that's not exactly a thrilling conclusion and worthy of our heroes.So if a vehicle is taken down to 0 hit points you have to make a judgment call as to what exactly that means... if you think it's OK that the car stalls out go for it, and if you think that it's best that the car instantly explode in a glorious movie-like explosion don't let me stop you. But the former is the sort of situation that happens to our heroes, while the latter is something that happens to the bad guys constantly.

Vehicular Mooks

To put this all in to perspective let's go back to our shining example: Max is driving hard in his Interceptor and being chased by two dozen marauders. Now, if you gave each one of those marauders and their vehicles the same statistics that Max and his Interceptor had, Max would surely get creamed. So let's treat each one of these marauding vehicles as either a mook or as a monster with really low hit points.

Thinking about it, vehicles as mooks works fantastically. It allows you to have that dramatic situation where dozens of inexperienced drivers in weak cars band together and chase down our beloved heroes. I mean, you can just imagine these foolish mooks bouncing off the side of our hero's transport, slamming into a ditch, exploding in to flames upon the slightest bullet hit, etc... Let's say that Max points his gun out the window and fires at a nearby marauder, getting a critical hit and causing more than enough damage to take out two or three of them. Story wise, that's as simple as describing how the target lost control of the vehicle and skid into the path of another marauder, taking them both out. Whenever any marauder gets taken out, they should go out in a glorious display of carnage and vehicular mayhem, just because they can!

Now let's say that Max isn't exactly lucky in the die rolling department and the marauders end up causing enough damage to drop his Interceptor to 0 hit points. Even though the Interceptor is 50% gas tank, how anti-climactic would it be to have the car burst into a column of flame and kill Max instantly? If every marauder hit the Interceptor with a critical hit, would you still allow Max to die in such an anti-heroic fashion? Heroes don't go out that way, at least not usually, so Max will continue to fight until the only thing left of his trusty Interceptor are the floor mats.

In a nutshell, our heroes should always be able to walk away from an accident one way or another, even if the mechanics and the die rolls don't exactly reflect that. If a PC takes physical damage that would cause them to go unconscious or die, sure, but if their vehicle takes more beating than it could handle it shouldn't outright kill a PC unless the plot allows it.

Enemies, however, are not so lucky. When their car hits 0 hit points, it will take them out in the most gloriously dramatic way possible.

Conclusion

So the section on vehicles looks like it'll be shaping up like this:

  • A very basic section on the required aspects of a vehicle, as discussed in Part 1 and Part 2 of this article series.
  • Options for installing things in vehicle hardpoints.
  • A brief section on maintenance and repair of vehicles, which will cover both the Wheelman profession and engineers with vehicular proficiency (that's an optional class talent).
  • A great deal of descriptive text trying to explain how to manage the mechanics of a high speed chase without detailing every single thing in terms of a fixed ruleset. Some things may require concise rules, but I'll try to avoid that.
  • An example combat sequence: basicaly, describing a sequence similar to Mad Max fleeing from The Humungus and his crew.

Should be fun...

Anyway, that's it for vehicles for now. Soon I'll be talking about something else that will hopefully be just as entertaining.